Language Abuser

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean, nothing less, and nothing more." -- ThroughTheLookingGlass by LewisCarroll

The language abuser doesn't understand or accept that the purpose of language is to communicate. Or else, in the fashion famously exposed by GeorgeOrwell, attempts to obfuscate by misuse of language. If 99% of the population understands a word to mean a specific and useful concept, they will try to convince you that it really should (or does!) mean something else, possibly related.

Then there is the language abuser who takes a definition of a word in one context, and applies it to a different context (often with the attempt to have his cake and eat it too, via equivocation). Many common ordinary words are given more precise meanings by the academic community (and different fields of study may assign different meanings to the same word). Nothing wrong with this--academic discourse often demands greater precision than the communications of everyday folk. However, it is a not-uncommon technique for someone to take such a definition out of the academic community and attempt to interject it into a non-academic context, all the while insisting that the academic definition rather than the common definition is the correct one (after all, 99 out of 100 Ph.D's agree). Often this is done while trying to retain all the emotional baggage and connotations attached to the common definition (and which no longer apply to the academic one).

Language abusers rarely understand that they are trying to change language. If someone does understand what they're doing then either they give up (because changing language is extremely difficult) or they feel they have a legitimate grievance against the widespread conception of the term.


Before Einstein, relativity was relativity. During Einstein, relativity was not relativity. After Einstein, relativity was relativity. See ThreeStagesInJeetKuneDo.


There is a term for mistakenly misusing a word in an attempt to seem erudite, but for the life of me, I can't remember what it is. It's probably Greek. I hesitate to call one who repeatedly uses the wrong words by mistake a LanguageAbuser. Yet when that person's a journalist, a writer, a talk show host, even a talk show guest--someone getting paid to use words--I cringe.

Then there's the problem of mistakenly mispronouncing a word in an attempt to seem erudite. This is particularly prevalent when the English word started out French. Examples heard on radio and TV within a few weeks:

WcFields used to make fun of this phenomenon back in the 1930s. He played characters named Bissonette (which he insisted was pronounced Bisson-AY) and Souse (which he insisted was pronounced Soos-AY).

Come to think of it, I miss my grandma who correctly called her two-door car a coupé (coop-AY), yet it's okay with me if the Beach Boys want to sing about a Little Deuce Coupe (coop).

There's also the problem of taking a foreign word which has been incorporated into English and mistakenly applying the wrong language or grammatical rules to it. I remember having lunch a few years ago with an announcer from Minnesota Public Radio. She said she's "someone who's in the medii (mee-dee-eye)." "Medii??" I said. "You're a person who's in the media. You should know better."

-- ElizabethWiethoff


'Whom' should be used in the nominative case only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired. -- James Thurber (Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage)


See also ExcerptionNotAbstraction, SapirWhorfHypothesis, MeaningVsDefinition, EquivocationFallacy, PurityOfEnglish, EnglishLanguagePrescriptiveness
CategoryNaturalLanguage

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